Month: October 2019

North Central West Virginia Punk Scene of the Early 2000s

This piece was written for a proposed anthology on punk in Appalachia. When that project didn’t happen, its organizer asked for submissions for a zine instead. Since the zine cut a large chunk from my piece without consulting with me, and the result omitted important information and conclusions, I’ve published it in its entirety here. Thank you to everyone who spoke with me about their experiences!

 

Punk in North Central West Virginia in the early 2000s inhabited a unique moment in time and space, as all cultures and countercultures do, of course—unmatched before or after. Like other “scenes,” it was hard to recognize its specificity until after the moment passed. Punk felt, at the time I was introduced to it in 2001, like something which had existed in a semi-static state since the seventies, and something which would continue in perpetuity.  Several factors, though, including the socio-economic status of the place where it occurred, geography, and world politics and events, led to its inimitable characteristics, and these connections are what this piece hopes to capture—the visceral feeling of being a punk in this particular place and time, as well as the factors that influenced this feeling.

Of course, I cannot claim to speak for every person who experienced this particular scene. At the time of my participation, I was a white, culturally Jewish, able-bodied, teenage woman whose family was lower-middle class. Though I did not identify as strictly “straight,” I dated people who identified at the time as men. My experience was certainly different than someone whose identity differed in various ways. I’ve tried to note this throughout.

As the closest CD store was 40 minutes away, and streaming music was not yet available, the opportunity to obtain new music was rare. Often we relied on burnt CDs from friends or mail order catalogs from small record labels to discover new bands. Local bands were central to the scene. False Profit, a band consisting of members several years older than our own group, was the holy grail of local punk, though their followers caused problems within the community which I discuss later. Our own group continually formed and reformed bands in various configurations, whose monikers included The Scrotch Rockers, The Fall, Small Town Disaster, Americancer, Men with Muscles, and The Misogynistas, a band I played the bass in while wearing an apron and bare feet, who played songs we thought of as ironic at the time with titles like “Clip the Clit.”

The concept of authenticity was important in the scene. One wanted to be authentically “punk” without, of course, trying too hard to be so. Not conforming to the agreed-upon standards of dress, politics, and musical taste, or doing so in a way that was perceived as too enthusiastic could both get one labeled a poser. In retrospect, I considered the possibility that women may have held each other the most harshly to these standards.

Kim Miller’s comments support this hypothesis. “There was one (woman) I remember yelling ‘fucking poser’ at me from across the street more than once,” she said. “Like I’d never even talked to this girl but she thought I wasn’t ‘punk enough’ to hang out with her guy friends. Maybe she thought I was invading her territory or something.”

Miller’s further memories make it seem possible that women were held to higher standards by all in the scene. “I remember being harassed by some older guys at lunch for having a Rancid patch on my backpack, being called a poser, and told to name my favorite songs to prove I listened to them,” she told me. “None of the dudes at the table had to deal with that.”

Similarly, Brooke Lily said, “I remember feeling like just being a girl in the scene or one who skated was a big deal, like you had to prove you belonged there.”

My longer-lasting band, WDHP (We Don’t Have Penises), was not fully accepted as part of the official scene, presumably because the covers we played were too cutesy.

Lily brought up this band in her reflections too. “You all were doing great but it was like the guys got credit still just because you were their girlfriends and they were teaching you how to be in a band when in actuality you practiced and worked together on your own.”

Whoever was policing women’s authenticity, men involved often seem to approach their own belonging in a self-deprecating, more playful way. Brandon Williams, who, with his instrumental versatility, found his way into several bands, shared that he did think about authenticity, but was inspired to be critical of it. “I was really into the Casualties sophomore year,” he said, and explained that then he and a friend had a long conversation about a band whose message was “don’t look this scene. Live this scene.” He became less concerned with his outward appearance.

For those who continued to want to “look the scene,” extreme hair was the pinnacle of authenticity, and I chose for myself a spiked mohawk. Other friends wore liberty spikes, men let their hair grow long, and Manic Panic hair dye was ubiquitous though difficult to obtain—it had to be purchased at Sally’s Beauty supply, on rare trips to the mall, or from Interpunk.com. Band t-shirts, the more obscure the better, baggy jeans, and skate shoes were the uniform. One’s musical taste was also under regular scrutiny. Crass were cool; The Clash were too commercial. These goal posts constantly shifted. Anti-Flag was cool until they weren’t, the same with AFI. The trends were circular and often came back around. One regularly got into a band that had previously been disowned, once they became obscure enough again. It was also acceptable to like other types of unpopular music—video game electronica, or even the children’s band The Wiggles, and tracks from these sometimes found their way onto mixed CDs alongside NOFX or Propagandhi. Locally, a band called The Masters of Unlocking played video game covers, and Technochini played bizarre keyboard electronica way before it was as mainstream as it is today. Being “punk” didn’t always mean playing punk—it was more about a feeling of obscurity and resistance.

Reflecting this inclusivity, our group was tight but not insular. Our social circle overlapped with many that were not involved with punk music at all, including dancers, band geeks, and “preppy” or popular kids. Punk bands often performed at church youth group open mic nights. Other shows took place at a Teen Center, The Stockert Youth Center, the local dance studio, people’s driveways, and a pizza place a few towns away.  We did not, however, mix largely with some of the more working class students, or “rednecks” because we thought they were conservative and they thought we were “faggots.”

Another critical division which arose was between punks and metal kids. The Hodgesville Community Center, several miles North of Buckhannon became an important hub for shows. Bands played in the same space where the local Lions Club met, surrounded by carpeted walls decorated with banners from the fraternal organization. I moshed in the same space where I’d attended 4-H Club meetings and even friend’s birthday sleepovers.

Because of the size of our region, there were often not enough bands to fill a night, and so punk and metal bands shared a bill. The punks made a point of sitting outside as the metal bands played and vice versa. For our part, we knew our music was better as were our politics (in that we cared about politics enough to make it central to our music). From outside of the community center, the metal songs were just a long low drone. When they finished, their fans poured out, bringing with them the smell of weed and greasy hair. I wonder what the metal kids thought about us.

Punk music radicalized many of us politically, as bands sang about world affairs, sexism, and racism. One friend shared that his father was a “staunch conservative” and that at 14 years old he, himself was “starting to go that way.” He heard Propagandhi’s Today’s Empires, Tomorrow’s Ashes, an album that was pivotal for many in our group. “I can still take that album today,” he said. “And say ‘this has really shaped me.’”

9/11 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were the prominent issues of the day and resistance to these wars was a prominent theme in our music. I, and several other punks, wore black armbands to the high school and wrote letters to the editor of local newspapers. We boycotted Coca Cola. Our backpacks donned patches with slogans like “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” and “Keep Your Rosaries Off My Ovaries.” When the Teens for Life club set up a table in the high school cafeteria, some punks responded with assertions that they had their own club—Teens for Death. Ironically, we rarely spoke about economic issues, even ones affecting our state and region, and were largely blind to the influence these had on the “redneck” classmates we felt at odds with.

Perhaps surprisingly, in the smaller segment of the scene that was my social circle, punk was not about drugs or alcohol. Though many of us experimented with both in other social circles, or with punks who were older or younger than ourselves, our immediate group spent our time sober—playing Dance Dance Revolution, eating ice cream and watching movies, skateboarding or watching people skateboard, going on work trips to poorer parts of the state, walking around town, and of course, playing and listening to music.

I would venture to say that our social circle actually prevented more experimentation with controlled substances. The trouble we got into involved hammering baseball bats into lawns and melting things with Styrofoam and gasoline.

The same cannot be said for sex. Sexual tension ran high as hormones peaked. Sexual activity was frequent and experimental. One friend relayed a story when we were teenagers about group oral sex being used as the currency in a local band’s video game tournament. I want to say it was Mario Kart. Another shared that at a sleepover, he and another friend ran around a basement naked. Camping out in the woods behind a friend’s house, our tent was, responsibly, alcohol free, though we did begin the night by standing naked in a circle and grabbing the genitals and buttocks of those to our right then left. Punks had sex in cars, behind buildings, and in friends’ bathrooms.

Unfortunately, these raging hormones and the era—this was long before the Me Too movement, meant that in spite of progressive lyrics from some of our favorite bands (As Propagandhi fans, we sang along with Chris Hannah as he refused to be a man), sexual assault and sexism were still prevalent in the scene. At a Halloween show at the Hodgesville Community Center, I dressed as Gwar member Slymenstra Hymen, a costume which involved short shorts, and had my butt cheek slapped by a member of False Profit without consent. At another show, a man squeezed women’s boobs as their “entrance fee” before letting them into the show.

Miller said, “Guys asking you to show them your boobs was really common.”

Lily shared, “I remember hanging around a few guys trying to just fit in and they admitted they wrote a song about me and it was about my boobs….Some people who were considered part of the scene were pigs, really.”

One friend retold stories of more serious abuse by members of the punk community.

Women were often made to feel their sexuality could earn them the respect in the scene that they coveted (and that men did not have to prove themselves for).

“At a False Profit show at Rosie’s, a group of guys collected money to pay a friend and I to make out while they watched,” Miller said. “I feel like a lot of dudes didn’t take us seriously. I wish I’d been as assertive then as I am now.”

Lily had a similar experience. “A band one day would give a CD to the person they felt did the craziest thing and everyone kept doing stupid stuff. I was like, ‘I’ll show you my boobs because in my head, women in the scene didn’t give a shit. They were badass and didn’t care. I ended up getting the CD and even though I had an attitude of ‘Fuck it, it’s fine,” I lost self respect.”

The Hodgesville mosh pit was treacherous for anyone. The community center was large and show-goers did not fill the space, so it was not supported by the walls.  Instead, our pit was a swirling circle of kids in the middle of the room, shoving one another and struggling to stay upright. Williams recalled a time when someone “jumped off the table and landed on my head.”

Women in the pit were not exempt from its physical dangers, and in addition were subjected to people who took advantage of the anonymous chaos, and it was rare to emerge from a mosh pit without having one’s breast or ass intentionally groped. The punk scene was not a totally safe space for women in North Central West Virginia in the early 2000s, but it was safer than many.

For the people of color and LGBT people I spoke with, however, the scene did feel like a refuge, especially in contrast to the larger community.

“I can’t think of any particular individual that struck me as an out and out homophobe, but I didn’t talk to many of them,” a friend who came out in high school told me. “The little pocket of the scene that our friends created always felt safe.”

Greg Debarr said that as one of the only black kids in our town, he “got beat up all the time.” The punk scene was different. “Everyone in the punk scene had super duper respect for me,
he said. “That’s what it was about—being different.”

Alex Ryan felt similar, saying, “I found upon throwing myself into the scene that it was far more inclusive than, well, a lot of places, especially for a person of color. Kinda became a safe space in that sense. And I think because of that, it solidified my love for music even further, even into college.”

He explained that in our small town, people often thought he was “some kind of ‘hoodrat’” because of his race. “Friends I grew up with in that scene helped me to realize that I don’t have to be categorized based on stigma and stereotyping.”

The question that comes to mind when I reminisce about this era is its significance. Who did the punks of this time and place become and how did their participation in this scene influence that?

Brandon Williams became a music teacher. Because of his early revelation that he didn’t have to look the scene, he said, “that punk ideal can still live on.” He tries to expose his students to alternative music, to encourage them to explore all genres, and to open their ears to lesser-known artists.

Ernie Williams’ sousaphone thesis is “an ongoing performance project that is essentially about how art and music literally saved my life, finding an alternative from the fate of being the son of a coal miner.”

Kim Miller said, “I think it’s made me more independent and at the same time given me a sense of community. I’ve moved over 1000 miles twice to cities where I didn’t know anyone. People asked if I was concerned about making new friends and I never have been. I’ve always figured I can go to a show, meet likeminded people, and everything will work out… It’s definitely made me feel like I can go anywhere and do anything I want and nothing will hold me back.”

Ryan said, “I think being in that environment helped me remain positive and open-minded about my interactions with people.”

Though reflecting on this era with others has made it clear in retrospect how short the scene fell for women in many ways, my impressions of it are still largely positive. The sexism and assault are dark splotches in memories filled with self-discovery, political awakening, good music, bad hair, and intense friendships. Perhaps most importantly, many of these friendships persist today.

We came of age together and that feels important. Our politics are still progressive. We still care about one another. We are still living the scene.